Natasha Romanoff's family had never been covered before in the MCU, besides her brother-like connections with Steve, Tony, Clint, and Thor. Besides her bond with the Avengers, Black Widow gave fans their best look at Natasha's first fabricated family.
The movie begins in 1995, with Natasha, her little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), her father Alexei (David Harbour), and her mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). They live in an Ohio suburb, and their little life seems relatively normal.
One second, Melina is cooking dinner and Alexei is home from work late, then a few minutes later, the family of four is trying to escape from SHIELD agents.
Audience members soon learn that Alexei Shostakov aka the Red Guardian and Melina Vostokoff aren't normal Ohio parents. They're Russian spies sent to Ohio for a specific mission in conjunction with the Red Room.
THE WINTER SOLDIER PROJECT
During a dinner scene between the newly reunited faux family, Melina goes into detail about their previous mission in Ohio. They were sent there to steal research from HYDRA's Winter Soldier project that would be the key to mind control:
"We infiltrated the North Institute in Ohio. It was a front for SHIELD scientists. Actually, it was HYDRA scientists at that time. In conjunction with the Winter Soldier project, they had dissected and deconstructed the human brain to create the first and only cellular blueprint of the basal ganglia. Was the hub for cognition. Voluntary motor movement, procedural learning. We didn't steal weaponry or technology. We stole the key to unlocking free will."
Bucky Barnes was brainwashed and controlled by HYDRA for years as the Winter Soldier. The method of his mind control seemed to be less precise than how Black Widow's main antagonist, Dreykov, controls his Widows.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, audiences witnessed HYDRA reset Bucky's mind using an electric shock method.
However, this confirmation by Melina shows that the science and technology of both uses of mind control are fundamentally similar. The research that went into the Winter Soldier project ultimately was used on Yelena and countless other Widows.
PSYCHOLOGICAL CONDITIONING VS. MIND CONTROL
During a conversation between Yelena and Natasha in Black Widow, Yelena explained the level of control and precision behind Dreykov's control over the Widows:
"What you experienced was psychological conditioning. I'm talking about chemically altering brain functions. They're two completely different things."
It's important to understand that Dreykov chemically subjugates agents to mind control them. Natasha never went through this, but in 2016, he is "chemically altering brain functions" of all the Widows.
Luckily, there was an antidote made by a former Widow that freed Yelena early on in the movie and went on to be the ticket for all the Widows' freedom.
The Winter Soldier project has never been fully explained or dissected. What has been shown is that not only can Bucky Barnes be tortured into compliance but also a list of codewords can throw him into complete mind control.
As seen in Captain America: Civil War, Baron Zemo read Bucky "seventeen, daybreak, furnace, nine, benign, homecoming, one, freight car" in Russian, and suddenly, he's the Winter Soldier, ready to comply.
Is there another Russian book with Widow code words?
COULD YELENA BE THE NEXT WINTER SOLDIER?
After explaining to Natasha the difference between her training and the new form of mind control, Yelena revealed something important about herself going forward:
"You're fully conscious, but you don't know which part is you. I'm still not sure."
Until Bucky went to Wakanda after the events of Civil War, he was never sure about his own mind and couldn't be trusted because of it. Similar to Bucky killing Tony's parents under the control of HYDRA, Yelena has killed many people she never would've if it was up to her.
Yelena will return for the Hawkeye series and possibly more projects afterward. Considering she is working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Valentina, who recruited John Walker as the U.S. Agent in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, she may bleed the line between a hero and villain in the MCU.
She's going after Clint Barton in Hawkeye, under the impression that he is responsible for her sister's death. Clearly, Val and whoever else she works with is trying to guide her in a specific way and use her assassin skills for their own gain.
In theory, the leaders of this group (whether it be the Thunderbolts, Dark Avengers, or something else) could be trying to gain the trust of recruits like Yelena, just to ultimately use her as Dreykov or HYDRA did to Bucky.
What if Val does have a way of taking control of Yelena? It would be smart to bring her in, earn her trust, then utilize this weapon when needed the most.
More of Yelena is promised in the future, and her dealing with still finding herself in the world could be interesting to see. Especially if she was snapped away for five years, she hasn't had much freedom in her life.
Yelena's discovery of which part of her is really her is something many fans would want to see and would make a Winter Soldier-like mind-wipe that much more heartbreaking. This unknown aspect of hers could set her far apart from Natasha as a character and lead down darker paths.
Can Yelena's mind still be controlled by others? Fans will get to find out soon when Florence Pugh makes her return to the MCU in Hawkeye.
Black Widow is now streaming on Disney+ via Premier Access and in theaters worldwide.